Theater Review: CORIOLANUS (Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston)

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by Lynne Weiss on April 2, 2023

in Theater-Regional


When I think of Shakespeare’s women, many names come to mind: Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Beatrice, Portia, Helena, Titania, Rosalind, Juliet, Desdemona. Going forward, thanks to the powerful performance of Jennie Israel in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s modern verse translation by Sean San José of Coriolanus, I will always include Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, in that list. Genevieve Simon delivers an equally riveting performance as Coriolanus in this production directed by A. Nora Long. The interaction between Simon and Israel is at the center of this story of a warrior. “Blood covers a man / More than gold gilds a trophy,”  Volumnia says. She would rather have her son die in battle than “live effortlessly.” So Volumnia encourages her son to pursue what she sees as a life of glory, fighting for his country. But when Coriolanus joins forces with his former enemy, Aufidius (ably played by Patrice Jean-Baptiste), and threatens Rome, Volumnia begs her son to broker a peace deal. His acquiescence to her wish leads to tragedy.

Genevieve Simon, Patrice Jean-Baptiste

Jules Talbot, Jennie Israel, and Donna Sorbello

This show is worth seeing for those performances alone, though I do not mean to minimize the contributions of the rest of the cast, many of them, along with Simon, making their ASP debut and doing so very well. These include Donna Sorbello as Menenius, Jules Talbot as Virgilia, Ahtziri Ulloa as Sicinius, and Shanelle Chloe Villegas as Brutus. Ulloa and Villegas inject their roles with contemporary energy. I’m not sure that it’s an unadulterated plus to see Romans portrayed as hip young people, but Ulloa and especially Villegas bring needed surprise and humor to a rather heavy play. Everyone but Simon also performs in the Ensemble, filling the parts as soldiers and citizens on both sides of the battles.

Genevieve Simon, Patrice Jean-Baptiste,
Donna Sorbello, Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Ahtziri Ulloa

I’m not a fan of dual-role-casting (in this case, sometimes quadruple- or even quintuple-casting), especially with Emily Woods Hogue’s minimalist costuming. As with much of Shakespeare, this is a dense play, even with the modern verse translation, and I sometimes found the action in the first three acts difficult to follow (though I had no trouble whatsoever in following the climactic scenes in acts four and five). My companion didn’t have this problem, so it might just have been me, but I think more distinctive costuming might have helped me track exactly which role different performers were assuming and thus better understand the action. The simple army-green pants and white T-Shirts worked well for soldiers. Some of the knitted or crocheted additions were confusing and distracting.

Patrice Jean-Baptiste, Jules Talbot, and Jennie Israel

Genevieve Simon, Jennie Israel

Scenic designer Cristina Todesco makes the most of the black box theater with a backdrop of what appeared to be murals from Pompeii, setting the scene for tragedy from the moment we step into the space. Mackenzie Adamick’s sound design included numerous percussive elements provided by the feet of the performers, heightening the militaristic atmosphere of the show. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s infrequently produced plays, yet its portrayal of the relationship between heroes and those who elevate them to that status speaks very much to our present day. People who have been taught to admire conquest will see a peacemaker as a traitor, even if that peace saves the people from destruction. It’s a problem that plagues us today, and this production offers an excellent opportunity to see the ways in which the Bard portrays this tragedy.

Donna Sorbello, Ahtziri Ulloa, Shanelle Chloe Villegas

photos by Nile Scott Studios

Actors’ Shakespeare Project
co-produced with Play On Shakespeare
Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in Boston
ends on April 23, 2023
for tickets (Pay-What-You-Can-$52.50), visit Actors’ Shakespeare Project

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